The Culture War Is Over

The culture war is over. That may be the most important message contained in Pope Francis' remarkable interview with the Jesuit press last week.
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The culture war is over. That may be the most important message contained in Pope Francis' remarkable interview with the Jesuit press last week. Yes, there will still be some skirmishing and some bumps and jostles along the way. But Pope Francis effectively challenged the central premise of the culture war -- that modern secular culture is at war with Christianity.

The Pope makes clear, in thoughtful, creative ways, that he does not see essential antagonism between Church and culture. Let's look first at his favorite artists. He has a fondness for the very secular Federico Fellini, especially his film La Strada, which depicts a young teen-age girl sold by her mother into servitude to an itinerant circus strong man. His favorite painter is Caravaggio, the intense and brooding Renaissance figure, a street brawler who wounded a police officer in a drunken rage and killed a man under mysterious circumstances. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- his deep sinfulness, Caravaggio knew the full range of human emotions, both the depths and the glories, and expressed them better on canvas better than any member of his generation. Thus, the pope suggests, we can find valuable lessons from the secular world. We can even find such lessons in the works of great sinners.

The Second Vatican Council, Pope Francis emphasizes, was open to culture in this way. The Council did not see contemporary culture as the enemy nor did it seek to oppose it. Rather, the Council sought "a re-reading of the Gospel in the light of contemporary culture." This was the meaning of Pope John XXIII's proclamation of "aggiornamento." Echoing the sainted Pope John, Francis insists that today's Catholics must remain in dialogue with the larger society.

The "culture war" model of the Church, in which Christian defenders of Fortress Ecclesia pull up the draw-bridges and prepare for a long, dark night of besiegement, has no place in Francis' thoughts. Partnership, friendship, or at least honest, self-reflective conversation -- these must be the essential features of the Church's relationship with secular culture.

And if the Church can learn from culture, Francis says, it can also learn from history. Indeed, through its study of history, Francis makes clear, the Church has already changed its teaching on some issues, sometimes quite dramatically.

Consider usury: There was a time, especially in the first millenium, when the Gospel precept, "Lend freely, taking nothing in return," was understood literally as a strict prohibition on the taking of interest. Thanks to centuries of experience, Catholic theologians and canonists, in dialogue with Christian merchants, eventually crafted a body of doctrine that accommodated the taking of moderate interest, while condemning sharp and extortionate practices.

The pope is fully aware of this process and, indeed, revealed himself to be remarkably open and flexible to doctrinal development of this sort. "God," the Pope asserted, "manifests himself in historical revelation, in history." "Time," Francis continued, "initiates processes... God is in history, in the processes."

This is true also of Jesus' teaching. His parables, after all, are meant to be read in history. What are they, after all, but open-ended narratives that force every generation to reflect, adapt, and reinterpret the Gospel message for its own day?

Francis' insights into the historicity of God and revelation lead him to his deep sensitivity about the historical process. The Church is not an unchanging monolith, a block of granite standing strong against the winds and tides of hostile forces.

On the contrary, the Church is always engaged with the world around it in an open-ended and unceasing quest for greater understanding. This feature, after all, is common to every sentient and growing entity. Francis illustrates this point when he discusses his own youthful faults and how he learned from them. To describe this growth in awareness, he uses the image of someone traveling along a highway: "Ours ... is a 'journey' faith, a historical faith." It is, in other words, a progressive faith, moving forward in time as it continually sharpens and strengthens its understanding of the human condition.

And if individuals enrich their faith experience over time, so does the Church. Taking note of the Church's essential historicity, Pope Francis called attention to a passage by the fifth-century St. Vincent of Lerins: "Even the dogma of the Christian religion must follow these laws [of historical development], consolidating over the years, developing over time, deepening with age."

Thus, Francis says, a historically-grounded Church must learn from what has gone before. Francis acknowledges that there were concrete norms which the Church once condoned and even practiced and which it now finds reprehensible: "Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. Exegetes and theologians help the Church to mature in her judgment... The view of the Church's teachings as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong."

His discussion of history might be the single most revolutionary feature of Francis' interview. Let's see how it might play out with respect to same-sex attraction. In other parts of his interview, he reiterates his non-judgmental stance towards gays. The Church must not contribute to their "social wounding." The Church should realize not to "spiritually interfere" in the lives of gays. Francis acknowledges once again the welcoming parts of the Catechism and omits any mention of the condemnatory parts.

What comes next? Undoubtedly, on the subject of same-sex attraction, the pope is inviting dialogue. His statements, read in their completeness, must be seen as opening the door to "exegetes and theologians" to re-consider the Church's historic stance. Let's take science into account, let's come to a better awareness of human psychology, let's take a fresh look at revelation and tradition. And then us see where these inquiries lead us. Will we see substantive change in Church teaching? We could see the offensive parts of the Catechism removed fairly quickly. Deeper change may take a while longer. Ten years? Maybe 15? I certainly believe the door is open now in a way it has never been opened before.

On the other hand, I cannot imagine a fundamental alteration in the Church's position on abortion, although it is clear the pope wishes to change the way that teaching is presented. In his interview, he avoided all mention of the political dimension of abortion while focusing on pastoral needs.

Thus he discussed an all-too-typical situation in which a pastor confronts this human tragedy. A young woman went through a failed first marriage during which she had an abortion. Years go by. She is now married, with children. She is remorseful over her past and wishes to return to the Church. However the Church presents its doctrine on abortion, the Pope is saying, we must welcome this woman back and not drive her away with "small-mindedness."

To frame the question narrowly and to focus specially on the American context, I expect we might see at least some parts of the Church attempt to craft a bi-partisan or non-partisan approach to life issues. God, after all, can be found in both political parties. As Pope Francis says, God can be found "everywhere." But what cannot be found, in the Church of Pope Francis' dreams, is any room for the culture war.

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